By Kylie Cheung
“The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions.”
This was the opening line of a Stanford Admission Essay. The student got in. Perhaps stirring pasta by itself doesn’t impress the way a prestigious summer program does, but here the student writes a banal action in a manner that engenders intrigue. Only a rare individual could think up this sort of analogy and assert it as a personal introduction.
The college admission essay is not the sole determinant of acceptance, yet it plays the vital role of a medium through which you can prove yourself as more than letter grades and test scores and logged extracurricular hours; it communicates the essence of who you are. Challenging? Yes—so here is some advice on how to craft your essay:
Analyze the prompt. Break it down and identify the parts it asks you to write about. Your essay must address all parts. The second UC personal statement prompt, for example, asks for three things: something you’re proud of, why it makes you proud and how it relates to the person you are. Many students begin by agonizing over choosing what they’re proud of. However, the last part of the prompt is just as or even more important. Sometimes starting there and working backwards is easier.
Analyze yourself. The essay isn’t really about your talent, club, inspirational role model, etc. Whatever your topic, it has to reveal who you are, your personality and dreams. Think of words that might describe you, what your passions are, what motivates you to get up in the morning. One thing may grab you by the heart and refuse to let go. Write about that.
Reflect. Sift through the memories that have stuck to you through the years. Try to pinpoint whatever helps kindle you awake with the determination to live each day. The events that have happened to you, the people you’ve met and the choices you’ve made have all molded you into the person you are now. If any of them mark pivotal periods in your life, you can write about them.
Tell the truth. Admissions officers can detect lies. Resist the temptation to glamorize or invent in the hopes of a better chance of being accepted. Stay honest. Stay open. Stay yourself.
Focus your topic. You are not cramming a comprehensive portfolio of all of your good points into your essay. Within a small word limit, you can’t afford to ramble about generalities. Paint a small but detailed self-portrait as if you had a one-inch picture frame. Trying too hard to seem well-rounded will lead to failure—a circle is made of infinite points and none of them have substance. Avoid tangents and dig deeper, not wider.
Be specific. When you consider something important to you, you’ll likely know it in detail. Add in those details. Gushing about what you love proves how much you love it. The advice “show, don’t tell” applies here. Anyone can claim a life-changing experience, but not everyone can corroborate that claim with evidence.
Tell a story. Narratives tend to enrapture more than exposition does. Most good stories leave the character changed by the end, developed into a stronger and better person from facing obstacles and not giving up. You want admission officers to root for you in the same way you root for your favorite characters.
Stay humble. Your essay is not for bragging about your achievements. Instead of being cocky, credit other people in your life for what they taught you. Admit faults and insecurities; displayed vulnerability indicates more confidence than a perfectly polished ego. Readers want to see if you can overcome failures and learn from mistakes.
Be confident. At the same time, don’t put yourself down. Even if you want the readers to pity you, build your essay to uplift by the ending. You may have difficultly liking yourself where you are now, but don’t minimize your progress from where you used to be. You’ve had tough times, but you’ve made it through them and that is worth celebrating. Keep writing and rewriting. You can do this.
Get feedback. Ask your English teacher, an older sibling, a grammar-obsessed friend or anyone else who can offer constructive criticism. In the end, though, it is still your essay. If you absolutely want to write something, don’t let others hold you back.
Remember your self-worth. College application essays, when done well, can help you in self-discovery. You will grow and discover more about yourself later in life, but in your current stage you are still a unique person. No one else has your same exact experiences, talents and passions. Learn to believe you carry a special mix of traits you alone can contribute to a college campus and to the world.